Cold comfort: how the Roseanne revival portrayed a bleak America

Cold comfort: how the Roseanne revival portrayed a bleak America

June 04, 2018 | More from Food Trends | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Cold comfort: how the Roseanne revival portrayed a bleak America

The finale of the controversially rebooted sitcom brought to an end a season of problematic storylines, familial strife and a star whose off-screen politics threatened to derail it all

Theres a moving scene in the season finale of the Roseanne revival where Dan is desperately trying to save sentimental items from his rapidly flooding basement. At first he seems to have a handle on things, but when he places a large box on a shelf, it suddenly collapses, and boxes and toys and mementos come crashing down into the water. Dan smiles, bewildered and exhausted by his bad luck, and then proceeds to take a crowbar and angrily destroy the wall next to him, half laughing and crying as he does it.

There is a desperation to this scene that I think defines the entire first season of the series, which strives to tell the story of ordinary working-class people who just cant seem to catch a break. Despite the attention the series has received for touching on hot-button issues, the show is ultimately about disappointment and loss. Roseanne jokes that at least we finally got a swimming pool after all these years, but her humor is cold comfort for an American dream that has all but dried up. When Dans best friend Chuck comes over to confront him about hiring cheaper labor for one of his projects, Dan is both ashamed and resolute that he had no other option, I always told you, if Im eating, youre eating. Im not eating, Dan tells him sadly.

In this way, the Roseanne revival isnt just a portrait of middle America, but a portrait of middle America in profound crisis. True, the Conners have had to weather tough times before, but the new season is especially bleak, with each character having to contend with their own personal regrets at a time when options seem to be running out. Becky finds out her eggs are too old and she will never be able to have a baby. Darlene is forced to move back in with her parents and two kids when she loses her job. Roseanne is popping pain pills out of desperation, since she cant afford knee surgery.

The shows exploration of these economic issues is often subtler and more nuanced than the series is given credit for. John Goodman is particularly moving as Dan, a devoted father and husband who is trying to make the best choices for his family, and Sara Gilberts performance as Darlene is a compelling exploration of what happens when real life gets in the way of our dreams. Its not just poverty that is a roadblock to happiness either one of the series triumphs is being able to depict to loving allure of family life, while also illustrating its profound frustrations, from daily squabbles over household chores, to the way that intimacy is often conveyed through mean little jabs at one anothers expense, rather than little I love yous.

Roseanne Barr, Jayden Rey, Sara Gilbert and Laurie Metcalf in Roseanne. Photograph: Adam Rose/ABC

Roseannes meanness has always been an aspect of her character, yet her willingness to say the unsayable has taken on new meaning in a culture that has grown crueler over the past 20 years. While the reboot consistently handles economic issues with sensitivity, it is also often remarkably insensitive when it came to race. Roseanne assumes that the Muslim neighbors next door are terrorists, and both she and Dan malign Mexican workers as illegals. When Dan and Roseanne sleep through the black and Asian shows, Roseanne quips that they didnt miss much, noting how they are, just like us. Moments like these are meant to be edgy rather than overtly racist, but as much as the series tries to tie economic anxieties to racial tensions, its clear that Roseannes fears and frustrations around non-white families are portrayed as being natural, rather than sinister.

Likewise, there is a moment in this season when Roseanne quite literally holds her teenage granddaughter by the neck and pours water on her head as a kind of punishment for talking back, which is held up as an effective parenting technique, rather than a huge overstep that is borderline abusive. On Twitter, the real-life Roseanne touted her role in this episode by writing: The next episode shows Harris (my TV granddaughter) calling me a stupid old hillbilly watch how I handle her and her very liberal mother!

On the surface, these moments actually seem to run counter to the shows theme of bringing politically divided families together to the table to actually talk. Yet despite the constant refrain that Roseanne is more about family than politics, the main reason that Roseanne has been so successful is that it stokes controversy. Viewers, liberal and conservative, tuned in to the show in huge numbers because they wanted to see just what the real-life Roseanne Barr would use the show to say. Roseanne didnt offer America a seat at the table to discuss pressing issues, but a pop culture framework for fighting with one another more directly, not just about politics, but about dramatically different interpretations of what America can and should be.

With the news that co-showrunner Whitney Cummings, an outspoken liberal comedian who referred to herself as the PC police of the writers room, is leaving, producers have been working hard to assure viewers that the show will be even-handed in its approach. The now solo showrunner Bruce Helford explained in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter that the show will champion many perspectives: We have a lot of new voices, younger voices, which I think is important on the show We run a democratic room, almost nobody has a stronger voice than anybody else; everybodys input is there.

Even so, it seems clear that the show itself will never be exactly non-partisan. Its ratings success hinges on strong feelings about its lead star, rather than the shows reputation for offering a refined take on what it means to be an American family. In fact, the show has received a great deal of attention precisely because its star is so over-the-top. Roseannes far-reaching success points to how American culture continues to conflate bravery with bravado and to see outraged clicks as just as important an indicator of success as well-reasoned content.

The last moments of the season finale end with a strange scene of forced plenty, where Roseannes family comes together to eat a full meal just a few minutes before Roseanne has to begin to fast for surgery. We have seven minutes! DJ says, as a laugh track plays in the background. The overflowing table is a symbol of family togetherness, of connection, and hope after a season where there just never seems to be enough. There is not a moment to waste and, as they get down to eating, no one talks to one another at all.

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